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Book by Communication Studies professor examines how we think about our brains

If you’ve ever stopped to think about your brain, you’re in good company.

Americans have spent billions of dollars on various forms of popularized neuroscience, or everyday applications of the latest scientific discoveries about how our brains function. The health-care industry, self-help books, and advice on parenting are but a few places you can look to see examples of brain science working at the cultural level. But while the desire to improve our brains and those of our children may seem like an admirable goal, it is important to understand how we really think about our brains.

In her recent book, Brain Culture: Neuroscience and Popular Media, Davi Johnson Thornton, assistant professor of communication studies at Southwestern, closely examines the ways that neuroscience and popular media contribute to an ongoing dialogue about the inner workings of our brains.

Thornton’s interest in the cultural discourses that surround brain science began during her graduate studies at the University of Georgia, where she audited a course on brain imaging. “I began to see brain images everywhere, since they were on my radar,” Thornton said.

Digital imaging technologies like EEG, fMRI and PET scans produce digital pictures of the brain that differ widely from photographs of what scientists call the “wet brain,” or the actual brain; yet Thornton argues that these colorful renderings of graphic data hold greater “truth value” in American society than does the wet brain. In her article “‘How Do You Know Unless You Look?’: Brain Imaging, Biopower, and Practical Neuroscience,” published in the Journal of Medical Humanities in 2008, Thornton began exploring the relationship between brain imaging and neuroscience, which she later developed into an entire chapter of her book.

The ways in which neuroscience and the media circulate brain images has a real impact on how we conceptualize what Thornton calls the “rhetorical brain.” As she explains, this means that our understandings of the brain are not solely based on scientific fact, but are also framed by a broader socio-cultural context that negotiates these facts and interprets what they mean in the real world. “It’s not that science happens and society gets some watered down version of it—the influence goes both ways.”

Take, for instance, the impact of digital imaging technology on the literary genre of self-help. Images of the functioning brain have been used outside of their diagnostic value to suggest that we are able to exert control over our brains, if we choose to. This “mind over brain” mantra has led to the explosion of self-help literature, designed to bestow the willing reader with the power to control his or her thoughts and actions by working on their brain.

“These books, which are coming out so fast, and even articles from media sources are taking up these themes of self-help − that ‘You can control your brain, and that’s good, because your brain controls you,’” Thornton said. Case studies of such titles as Sharon Begley’s Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain are a central focus of her work.

In another example, Thornton points to the ways in which neuroscience and media portray the brains of babies as blank slates, often pressuring parents to provide the right kind of stimulation to ensure that their baby’s brain forms the proper connections to set them up for a lifetime of success. Much of the baby-brain discourse focuses on providing this sort of neural attentiveness during a child’s “critical period,” or their first three years of life. Vocabulary that likens the brain of a young child to that of a computer or the like constitutes what Thornton calls the “wiring metaphor,” by which parents are convinced that a single exasperated outburst can forge a neural connection that will remain a part of their baby’s brain forever. Thornton says that the emphasis on the mother’s necessity to give appropriate emotional inputs to her baby demonstrates the reach of the brain imaging and neuroscience discourse.

Through the rhetoric of celebrity-led campaigns to nurture the brains of our children and the pages of more than 100,000 self-help titles available to the reader in need, Thornton sees the relationship between science and society as hopelessly tangled, even necessarily so. “It’s never so simple as to make an indictment. I try not to indict the media or science because there is always some cultural frame we work within, and each one has advantages and disadvantages,” she said. The goal, then, becomes identifying these advantages and disadvantages that have a real impact on Americans. “Because [popular neuroscience] is so celebrated and uplifted, my natural inclination as a scholar is to say, ‘Wait now, is this really so great?’”

− Shannon Hicks

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